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Week 11 College Football Awards: Chaos Reigns, but Alabama Escapes Unscathed

Plus: the best moments from college football in Canada and Division III

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Chaos in college football normally comes in the form of things like Auburn’s 2013 season: two Georgia defenders can’t decide which one of them should catch a pass they could easily knock down, so they boop the ball toward a receiver who’d randomly decided to take a scenic route on the most critical play of the game, and Auburn wins. Alabama decides to kick a field goal that lands a few feet short of the goalposts, and forgets that field goals are actually returnable, and Auburn wins. College football chaos is supposed to be beyond your wildest dreams.

The chaos of 2017 thus far is dreamable — just stuff from the fever dreams of underdogs and the nightmares of potential national champions. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a number of legitimate national title contenders get blown the hell out, something you don’t often see from teams that proved themselves to be excellent for two and a half months.

The chaos started last week with then-sixth-ranked Ohio State losing 55–24 to Iowa. I marveled at the strangeness of this whooping last week, but it’s even stranger now — the Buckeyes bounced back by trouncing 12th-ranked Michigan State 48–3 — the 17-point spread before the game made MSU coach Mark Dantonio laugh, but it was about 28 points too low. Meanwhile, a week after scoring 55 points, Iowa managed just 66 yards in a 38–14 loss to Wisconsin.

Auburn played Georgia, the no. 1 team in the country, and dumped the Bulldogs, 40–17. You just don’t see the top-ranked team trailing by 30 in November very often.

Miami went up 34–0 on Notre Dame before letting the Irish get on the board in a 41–8 win. You don’t see the no. 3 team in the country losing 34–0 in November very often. I doubted the Hurricanes after they squeaked out four straight one-possession games by a combined 18 points against lackluster ACC opponents like North Carolina and Georgia Tech. Then, against their two best opponents of the year, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, they won by 18 and 33. The U is back, and apparently dominant.

These blowout losses by apparent contenders reveal that there are fewer undeniably great teams this year than there have been over the past few years. We’re down to just three undefeated power-conference teams with two weeks left in the regular season and the conference championship games remaining; there are only three remaining one-loss power-conference teams.

The first three years of the College Football Playoff had established a few guidelines — not official word from the committee, but good indicators of what they were looking for based on the teams they’d taken in past. No two-loss team made the playoff in the first three years, no conference put two teams into the field, and no team with a head-to-head loss against another playoff team was given a spot in the field and an opportunity to win a rematch. It seems certain that at least one of these rules will be broken this year, if not two or three.

It’s different chaos, but with this much uncertainty just a few weeks from the end of the season, I’d say it still qualifies as chaos. And as always, Auburn is involved.

Worst Coaching Decision

Mississippi State nearly made the whole sport stupid by beating Alabama on Saturday. If the Bulldogs had pulled off the upset, it would have been the first time in regular-season history that the no. 1, no. 2, and no. 3 teams had all lost on the same day. Instead, Bama won, which is something that has happened many times before.

The ingredients for an upset were all there. Alabama doinked a field goal off the upright in a tie game with 2:03 remaining. The sound of football meeting upright sounded like Mississippi State cowbells clanging. But Bama won, and here’s how.

Mississippi State had done a great job of blitzing against Jalen Hurts, sacking the Alabama quarterback five times. The fifth of those sacks came with 38 seconds remaining, setting up a third-and-15 near midfield in a tie game. Alabama called a timeout to figure out its strategy, and when the teams lined up, whistles blew. Right before the ball was snapped, Mississippi State had called timeout, allowing it to see how Alabama was approaching such a critical play.

It also showed that on third-and-15, the Bulldogs were blitzing heavily. Holy hell, that’s a ballsy move, but it had worked all night, and it looked like it might work again — two defenders were in position to deck Hurts before the whistles blew.

The teams huddled, and Mississippi State made an adjustment. Earlier, the Bulldogs were blitzing seven players, but realized their folly. Now, they were blitzing eight men, including both safeties.

This play is called a “Cover Zero,” which sounds pretty freakin’ bad, doesn’t it? But the zero refers to the number of deep zones — there is one in a Cover 1, two in a Cover 2, etc. In a Cover Zero blitz, everybody is playing man-to-man. It’s like the “Engage Eight” blitz that never works in Madden unless you’re playing on rookie, except in that play design, there are deep zones to prevent bad things from happening.

The corner guarding Calvin Ridley, perhaps the best receiver in college football, had to play about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage because he had no help. Bama, having seen the heavy blitz coming, called a much quicker pass play to Ridley, allowing Hurts to get the ball out before he got in trouble. Watch from the Skycam — you can see how easy this play was:

Mississippi State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham did a great job of sending blitzes most of the night, and head coach Dan Mullen deserves the hype he’s gotten this season. But calling an all-out blitz on third-and-15 was a ridiculous idea, and to show the opponent the play and then up the ante was even more ridiculous. Calling rock twice in a row might work in rock-paper-scissors if you psych your opponent into thinking you’re going to throw something else, but this is college football. You’ve got a much worse than 1-in-3 shot of beating Bama.

Worst Non-Coaching Coaching Decision

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko gave a speech to his team before it faced Miami, referencing the Hurricanes’ now-famed Turnover Chain.

“They can have the chain,” Elko said, “but we’re getting the fucking rings.” The subtext here: Miami is nothing. The Hurricanes can celebrate teensy turnovers with a gaudy piece of jewelry, but Notre Dame is a team that wins big things, like national championships.

But Saturday night was the story of a once-proud program returning to glory with a win over an established opponent. Well, I guess it could have been, if the program without a national title in my lifetime had won. Instead, Miami, which finished last season ranked, whooped the hell out of Notre Dame. Miami has an active NFL player with a national championship ring; the coach from Notre Dame’s last championship team retired from coaching 13 years ago, spent a decade broadcasting, then retired from that too. Miami hasn’t lost eight games since 1977 and has never lost nine games; Notre Dame has done both in the past decade. Why did Notre Dame treat Miami like the team that needed a win to return to national prominence?

Elko wanted to make fun of Miami’s blingy turnover chain, deeming it gaudy, yet insignificant. Well, Notre Dame can have the Jeweled Shillelagh, a gem-encrusted trophy for a relatively minor football accomplishment, but Miami might be getting the fucking rings this year.

Coaching Decision of the Week

When a team scores a go-ahead touchdown with, say, 45 seconds left in a game, every college football fan screams in unison: YOU LEFT TOO MUCH TIME. This sport is built on chaos, and that chaos could come in the form of a kickoff returned for a touchdown, a blown coverage on a Hail Mary, or a referee awarding a touchdown on a tackle 50 yards from the end zone. Nothing but a lead with zero seconds remaining is safe.

But I’ve never seen a coach act on this, until Saturday. Navy had a 34–11 lead on SMU before halftime, but the Mustangs stormed back to tie the game at 40. Midshipmen quarterback Garret Lewis had a lane to score a go-ahead touchdown with under a minute remaining in the fourth, but was told by the coaching staff not to score a touchdown, intentionally downing himself on the 1-yard line so Navy could bleed the clock down to a few seconds before kicking a field goal.

The amazing thing about this decision? Navy’s best kicker wasn’t even active. Bennett Moehring, the Middies’ regular placekicker, was injured. Punter Owen White took extra points for most of the game, hitting four of five, and sophomore J.R. Osborn was called in to take his first career attempt for the win.

He nailed it:

Honestly, I would not tell my team to do this. Ditching a sure touchdown for a field goal attempt means you believe the other team’s chance of matching your touchdown in under a minute is higher than the chance of an untested kicker’s chance of shanking a chip shot. I doubt that’s the case.

But the strategy (a) eliminated the extreme potential of losing in regulation, (b) kept a Mustang offense that scored 29 points in a half off the field, and c) most importantly, worked. Navy’s 6–3, which means Army-Navy’s gonna have two .500 teams in it again.

Worst Week

Basically everything I do in life is done in the interest of having as few people make fun of me as possible. I gawk in horror at the life of Bob Diaco, who this week cemented himself as a laughingstock at not one, but two institutions.

Diaco is currently employed as the defensive coordinator at Nebraska. In this job, he is sucking massively. The Huskers faced Minnesota, a team with one of the most lukewarm offenses in the offensively lukewarm Big Ten on Saturday, and got trucked into oblivion. The Gophers scored 54 points, the most they’ve scored in a game against an FBS opponent since 2006. Their previous high in a Big Ten game this season was 27 points. Minnesota ran for 409 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 9.1 yards per carry. Nebraska unironically gives its defensive starters practice jerseys with skulls and crossbones on them, and they gave up 409 yards rushing to Minnesota.

Hypothetically, the game was played for a trophy, the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy, which began as a Twitter joke in 2014 but has developed into an unofficial tradition, featuring a charity drive and occasionally garnering recognition from coaches and players. It began as an internet joke, but people loved it so much that it kind of became a real thing. Which stands in sharp comparison to what Diaco did at his old job, UConn, where he tried to turn a rivalry trophy game against UCF into a real thing, but everybody hated it so much that it turned into an internet joke.

This year’s game between UConn and USF, the first since Diaco’s firing, was on Saturday, and since the result of the game was never in doubt — UCF is undefeated and entered the game as 38.5-point favorites — the whole game week on the internet was spent ragging on the trophy Diaco invented. It was called the “Civil ConFLiCT” trophy, featuring the abbreviations of Connecticut and Florida. Despite the lack of history between the schools, Diaco attempted to make the game a “rivalry” essentially because the Knights were the only FBS team UConn beat in 2014, his first year on the job.

Last week, UConn athletic director David Benedict threw the trophy under the bus, saying Diaco designed and paid for it himself. I think he would literally throw the trophy under a bus, except nobody seems to know where it is. UCF “won” the trophy last year, but opted not to take it. and nobody at UConn has it. Meanwhile, UCF made fun of the trophy in its game notes, saying it “was never a thing.” After UCF’s 49–24 win, Fox’s college football Twitter account made fun of the trophy.

Asked about the trophy, Diaco said, “I put the experience in a chest, locked it, dumped it into the ocean, and I threw away the key.” Unfortunately, the pain has followed him to Nebraska.

Canadian Thing

Did you know they played college football in Canada? Well, they do, and it comes with conference-winning 59-yard field goals:

Here’s what’s great about that:

• The University of Calgary’s nickname is the Dinos. Hell yes. More teams should be dinosaurs.
• The goalposts’ placement at the front of the end zone makes possible a kick from beyond the 50-yard line.
• The 110-yard field makes possible a kick from a 51-yard line.
• THE UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY DINOS. Look, I get that the dinosaurs all went extinct. But that was due to a meteor. So as long as there are no teams with meteor mascots, the Dinos will win most mascot fights.
• The fact that a missed field goal can actually be a scoring play in Canadian football means the non-kicking team had a player hanging out behind the goalpost in case a return was necessary, which means the camera capturing the field goal also captures a player stompily reacting to his team’s devastating loss.
The. University. Of Calgary. Dinos. They didn’t even pick one dino! They’re all the dinos! T-rexes … pterodactyls … raptors… apatosauruses …

Anyway, this won the Dinos the Hardy Trophy for winning the Canada West conference. And, uh, can we get that kicker to come play for an American college? We can’t pay him, but right now the favorable exchange rate means American college degrees are worth 1.4 Canadian college degrees.

Whuppin’ of the Week

In Week 1, we wrote about Minnesota Division III football — specifically, St. John’s 98–0 win over St. Scholastica.

Well, it’s time to turn our attention back to Minnesota Division III football, for St. Thomas’s 97–0 win over St. Olaf.

St. Scholastica’s head coach, Kurt Ramler, was St. John’s former offensive coordinator. St. Olaf’s coach, James Kilian, was St. Thomas’s offensive coordinator last year. Man, the Minnesota Division III scene is absolutely freakin’ ruthless. Everybody holds grudges, nobody takes prisoners. “Minnesota Nice” my ass.

But to really understand what’s happening here, you need to know three things about Minnesota Division III football. The first is that an alarming number of teams have the same naming format — the St. John’s Johnnies, the St. Thomas Tommies, the St. Olaf Oles. Compared to the Dinos, it’s especially disappointing. Although it would be cute if the St. Auburn Aubies were the ones who wrecked Georgia on Saturday.

The second is that this conference, the MIAC, is apparently very lopsided. The third is that the two good teams in that lopsided conference, St. John’s and St. Thomas, have one of the best rivalries in football. Their annual game, the Johnnie-Tommie Game, was played at the Twins’ stadium this year, which more than doubled the previous record for most attended game in Division III history. St. Thomas won, 20–17.

But Johnnie-Tommie comes but once a year. So Saturday was a proxy war. I imagine the Tommies were trying to hit 98 against the Oles. They could have kneeled out the clock, but they scored their 14th touchdown of the day with just seven seconds remaining, giving them a chance of tying the Johnnies’ blowout win.

The Tommies missed the extra point, holding them at 97. St. Thomas won the actual rivalry game, but St. John’s won the blowout war. Everybody in Minnesota, I believe, needs to chill out.

Play of the Week

Let’s stay down in Division III. Here’s a hook-and-lateral that ends up with Heidelberg offensive lineman Brock Riggs somersaulting into the end zone:

Heidelberg, of course, are the Student Princes. See, Minnesota? That’s how you do names. Anyway, this play ends with a 290-pound guy front-flipping. It’s perfect.